Trouble Ahead? Chinese-Korean Disputes May Intensify

February 20, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia

Trouble Ahead? Chinese-Korean Disputes May Intensify

As Cold War glaciers melt, Chinese-Korean tensions may grow more pronounced.

North Korea, for its part, has consistently pursued regime survival through secrecy, symbolism, and special relations. Consistent with overall efforts to play a weak hand to maximum effect, Pyongyang has never publicized the boundary agreements it signed with Beijing in 1962. Kim Il-sung wanted to conceal his compromise over his purported birthplace and actual site of critical guerrilla activity he led during the revolution, which threatened his nationalist credibility. Yet the USSR’s 1991 collapse left China North Korea’s sole ally and benefactor. North Korea’s controversial nuclear program and a famine in the mid-1990s further strained the North’s economy, rendering it increasingly dependent on—and literally indebted to—China.

South Korea, meanwhile, has long employed symbolism to construct national identity. After World War II, South Korea advanced militarily, economically, politically, and socially, bolstering national pride. Since Beijing and Seoul normalized relations in 1992, bilateral trade has increased markedly. Beginning in 2003, China for the first time displaced the United States as South Korea’s main trading partner, with more than 50 percent of South Korean exports going to China. While benefitting from Chinese growth, however, South Korea also views China as a potential security threat. Coexistence with a great-power neighbor has never been easy for Koreans, who are wary of Chinese pursuit of territorial and maritime interests given previous Chinese expansion into and invasion of the Korean peninsula, e.g., during the Yuan and Qing dynasties. The Koguryo/Gaogeli debate remains relevant, in part because sharing the kingdom’s history, in Korean eyes, would undermine the goal of maintaining a distinctly non-Chinese national identity.


Examining the historical basis and evolution of continental, maritime, and riverine disputes among China and the Koreas suggests larger patterns of consistency and variation, and insights into the possible future evolution of some of the most important but understudied unresolved historical disagreements that permeate Northeast Asia.

Imperial Japan sought to use claims in Northeast Asia to justify invasion of the Korean peninsula and Manchuria, greatly complicating disputes and adding to their contemporary sensitivity. Today Koreans worry about Chinese claims, though this remains overshadowed by concerns about Japan’s claims on Dokdo/Takeshima Island. China and the Koreas have each pursued significantly different approaches with respect to portraying and pursuing disputes. China, with the greatest power and most complex equities, has emphasized different factors over time. It has long viewed northern Korea as a strategically vital buffer zone. Most recently, it also regards the DPRK as a source of valuable resources for Chinese state and private enterprises, and preserving its internal stability as the least-worst approach. China is therefore investing in infrastructure to facilitate economic development and resource extraction, though specific reliable data remain elusive.

South Korea has largely pursued a straightforward nationalistic approach, previously for construction of national identity under authoritarian governments, and most recently as part of democratic politics. Because Seoul refuses to acknowledge North Korea as a sovereign state, it does not recognize any attempts by Pyongyang to demarcate or compromise with China. In recent years, North Korea has prioritized regime survival, and thereby muted its public references to ongoing disputes with China. For example, while Beijing and Pyongyang by definition have an EEZ dispute in the Yellow Sea, there is no publicly available information on the nature of their overlapping claims there. North Korea is even cooperating, albeit in a guarded fashion given its acute internal security concerns, with China on basic border security, infrastructure, and economic development initiatives.

Pyongyang’s subordination of claims disputes with China to its overwhelming reliance on its gargantuan benefactor—which greatly benefits Beijing—has tended to suppress discontent regarding continental and riverine agreements, none of which borders South Korea. Meanwhile, Seoul actively disputes multiple maritime claims with Beijing. It has responded actively to Beijing’s recent unilateral announcement of an ADIZ that covers Ieodo/Suyuan, expanding its own ADIZ to cover the submerged formation and engaging in aerial patrols over the surrounding waters without notifying its neighbor—in defiance of Beijing’s apparent preferences. The rapidity and vigor with which South Korea has acted suggests that despite its reliance on China as its foremost trading partner, and general deference to China’s strongest stipulations, it is unwilling to fully subordinate manifestations of nationalism to the relationship’s economic logic. Over the next few years, therefore, it is likely that South Korea and China will have further disagreements in the maritime dimension, even as they continue to cooperate economically and both oppose Japan regarding historical issues.

A more fundamental question looms large, however: How would reunification of the peninsula change the dynamics of Sino-Korean territorial and maritime disagreements? While the Kim dynasty has displayed remarkable staying power as it enters its seventh decade of totalitarian rule, it seems unlikely to persist and transfer power successfully to a fourth generation given the inability of the system to allow for sustainable economic reform and growing unwillingness of the U.S., Japan, and even South Korea to reward crisis manufacturing and “shakedown diplomacy.” A unified Korea would seem unlikely to accept China’s positions regarding divergent views of history and sensitive regions, particularly concerning continental and riverine issues that are symbolically important to Korean identity, tangible, and zero-sum in nature—unlike EEZ and fisheries zones that may appear more abstract, lie far from permanent habitation, and are hence more amenable to compromise. If somehow consolidated and developed over time in a way that ameliorated the extraordinary burden of raising North Korean infrastructure and living standards, a united Korea could be a potent power in its own right. Already-formidable reservoirs of nationalism might be exploited and stoked further by political entrepreneurs seeking to diminish differences and expand common ground as part of a process of national reconsolidation. Under these conditions, it would be natural to seek to externalize domestic discord by emphasizing foreign disagreements, particularly involving history with Japan, military basing with the U.S., and territorial and maritime claims with China. One potential harbinger of the last concerns the Danwu /Dano Festival, which both Greater China and the Koreas claim as their own. Unfrozen from the constraints of an unfinished civil war and geopolitics stemming from the Cold War, Korean nationalism could truly become a force to be reckoned with.

Chinese policy-makers understand these risks acutely, however, and are well positioned to thwart them at present and mitigate them for the foreseeable future. Their first advantage is the reality of North Korea’s acute reliance on its only major benefactor, China. This dependency is likely to increase as the Kim regime faces growing challenges to its rule over time. Beijing can exploit this situation to exact explicit or implicit concessions regarding disputes, which Pyongyang would find unpalatable but likely unavoidable as it attempts desperately to cling to power. Particularly under the conditions Kim Jong-un has created with fatal purging of top officials, including his own uncle Jang Sung-taek, regime survival is to be preserved at all costs—even potentially the cost of mortgaging Korean patrimony. More broadly, Beijing is consolidating its position as a powerbroker over the Korean peninsula’s future, a reality with which Seoul must grapple as well. As part of any grand bargain involving North Korea’s evolution, China would likely exact concessions regarding disputes—particularly in the continental and riverine dimensions.

Thanks to the volatile forces of history and nationalism, however, even the most powerful national capabilities and diplomatic agreements cannot forever stifle disagreements among China and the present-day Koreas. They do not subordinate themselves completely to economic incentives or larger hard or soft power logic. Regardless of the peninsula’s future or the trajectory of related factors, disputes concerning historical interpretations and territorial and maritime claims among China and the Koreas will persist in some form. Understanding their critical dynamics will be essential to anticipating and responding to the opportunities and challenges of a pivotal region of the world that remains haunted by history.

Andrew S. Erickson is an associate professor at the Naval War College and an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Fairbank Center. He runs and co-manages Michael Monti, a member of the class of 2015 at the College of William and Mary, is pursuing a career in law.

Image: Wikimedia/Cheong Wa Dae/CC by-sa 2.0